10 tips for 'ambush guerilla user testing'

 by Martin Belam, 3 June 2010

Over the last couple of years I've been practicing 'ambush guerilla user testing', which is basically the art of pouncing on lone people in cafes and public spaces, and quickly filming them whilst they use a website for a couple of minutes. It isn't by any means a formal research technique, but you can soon build up a valuable clip library of initial reactions to you and your competitors' products, and tease out interesting anecdotal evidence about the way that people use and feel about your website.

Approaching strangers in a public place and asking to video them using the Internet sounds pretty daunting, so here are my top 10 tips to help you get started....

1. Get the right software and equipment

Personally I use my MacBook, Silverback, and a Flip camcorder, but what you basically need is:

  1. A portable computer with an Internet connection.
  2. Some software on the computer that videos the user and captures their on-screen actions at the same time.
  3. A means of recording short video clips.

PC based alternatives to Silverback include BB FlashBack Express and Camtasia

I try and pick venues that have freely available wifi, but I also have a 3G dongle so I can (network coverage permitting) be online anywhere.

2. Clear your desktop and close all other applications

When you are working with a subject, you don't want them distracted by a clutter of files on your desktop, or that cute background picture of your baby in the novelty outfit that was funny at Christmas. Instead, set your desktop to a dull neutral plain coloured background, and at the very minimum, drag all the stuff on your desktop into one folder called something intuitive like 'Desktop'.

Remember, your computer is going to be placed in front of strangers. Make sure that there are no distracting Tweetdeck updates, email flashes, or funny IM messages from your mates whilst they are testing your website. Or Windows XP update alert bubbles for that matter.

Really switch off everything.

3. Set up a new browser profile

I test using Firefox, because you can easily set up profiles. A new profile will have no cookies, stored passwords, or search or browser history. That means that if your session veers off around the net, your test subject won't suddenly find themselves logged into your Facebook account.

Don't know how to set up profiles? You can find out on the Mozilla site - Managing profiles in Firefox.

4. Take someone else with you

It is worth taking someone with you for three reasons:

  1. It is handy to set up a 'basecamp' with your coat, bag, cup of coffee, notebook etc etc. An additional person means you can leave them looking after your things whilst you approach potential subjects. You'll look calm and professional armed with just a laptop or small camera, instead of having to carry everything with you at all times looking like someone who has just stepped off a plane.
  2. Bringing someone from an area of the business outside of user experience or information architecture can help people get a better idea of what you do, and show them how valuable talking to users can be.
  3. If you bring someone of the opposite gender with you, they can accompany you and help ease the awkward tension when you basically walk up to a person of the opposite sex and say "Hello. I'm geeky. Can I film you with my laptop?"

5. Prepare your patter

There is nothing worse than summoning up the courage to approach a total stranger...and then not knowing what to say. Think in advance about how you are going to introduce yourself. For my initial approach I generally use a formula something like:

"Hi, I'm from organisation x and we are doing some research into how people use our website for y. I'm just going around asking people to have a quick look at our website, and recording what they think about it. It is for internal use within the company. Would you be interested in taking part...it will literally only take a couple of minutes..."

And I know there are all sorts of issues about declaring that you work for the company that is doing the testing amongst other things, but when you are only dealing with these participants for, at the most, 3 minutes, you need to get it all out in the open up front.

6. Be ready to improvise

This isn't about getting scripted usability lab work on the cheap. It is about gathering short, sharp anecdotal evidence and video clips from real users. You are only talking to them for a couple of minutes, so be prepared to let them steer the conversation onto a topic of their interest.

I'm sometimes not even rigid about what service I'm testing. If I'm out and about asking people about 'service x' on The Guardian site, and someone mentions that they are a big fan of 'service y' that we provide, I'll instantly switch to asking them about that. If you've stumbled upon a user of a particular service, don't pass up on the chance to film them talking about it and using it.

7. Make a clip reel, not an epic movie

After a few hours guerilla user testing, you should have enough material to make a punchy clip reel that can be watched by anyone in the business. Stick a voiceover on the beginning explaining what 'guerilla user testing' is, and then group the clips by theme. Make sure your clips are representative of your findings - don't just cherry-pick people saying the things you want the business to hear. Tomorrow I'll have a post explaining in a bit more detail my tips on how to make a good clip reel.

8. Know your limits

You'll note in the patter above that I clearly stated "It is for internal use within the company". Keep your clip reels within the company unless you have given the subject a complicated rights clearance form to sign after you finish doing the interview. I am not a lawyer, but for me, this isn't even a legal thing - it is a people thing. In the split second when you interrupt someone in the middle of doing something else in a public place, the last thing they are expecting is that the next two minutes of their life is going to end up on YouTube, or as part of a conference presentation. So don't do it.

9. This is not science

'Ambush guerilla user testing' is a great cheap way of meeting and filming some of your real users. You can produce really great video evidence to show people struggling with or enjoying and praising your products. It is also one of the only ways to test your site and talk to people who don't belong to the self-selecting group of people who are prepared to be tested in a lab.

But it isn't research science.

You must be quite clear when you present your findings back to the business that they are not those of a structured statistical study.

10. Be polite - to everyone

Be polite at all times. Some people you approach may not want to take part, and every now and again someone can be a bit aggravated that you have interrupted them. If that is the case, stay cheery and be apologetic.

And it isn't just about being polite to the subjects - be polite to your hosts.

If you are in a big public space, then you can probably get away without asking anybody for formal permission. If you are in a small shop or cafe though, ask the owner if it is ok to approach their customers. And wherever you are, at least buy a cup of coffee, especially if you are using their wifi and electricity.


Tomorrow I'll have a post outlining my tips on how to present your 'ambush guerilla user testing' clip reel.


Awesome step-by-step tutorial, thank you :) I never really knew how to approach these folks but you laid it out well.

What is your ratio of accepting vs. declining people that you approach with your short "formula"? I get about 1 out of 7 and well...takes quite a while to get a proper reel together.

Btw. how many clips do you seem "enough" for your guerilla testing project?

Looking forward to the next post in this series...

I always find that creating a new "limited" account on XP/Vista/W7 is the best way to have a user testing environment. You can 100% lock it down, and yet it is only a Windows+L away.

Very interesting idea to get some proper impartial feedback, personally I normally avoid people in the street with clipboards but if someone offered me a cup of coffee then just maybe....! Not sure we'll try this oursleves, but maybe a watered down version perhaps.

Really great article, Martin.

I'm looking forward to getting a chance to put this to use soon!

Very interesting idea to get some proper impartial feedback, personally I normally avoid people in the street with clipboards but if someone offered me a cup of coffee then just maybe

Really nice step by step. I am about to leave the company I am working for atm but maybe at my next job I'll be able to try some of this ambush guerilla user testing.
It also sounds like an interesting experience simply to get in touch with many new people and watching their reaction to your website.
I suppose most owners of cafés etc wouldn't want anyone to bother their customers about something like this, no?
Do you have experience on that?

Very interesting idea to get some proper impartial feedback, personally I normally avoid people in the street with clipboards but if someone offered me a cup of coffee then just maybe....! Not sure we'll try this oursleves, but maybe a watered down version perhaps.

Very interesting tip! I actually experienced something like this, and the only reason that i participated in the test is because the tester is a lady. Who can resist a beautiful fine lady?

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